The USA and the EU have imposed economic sanctions on Russia in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea.

The US has imposed restrictions on the exports of defence equipment and blacklisted numerous Russian officials, with the EU performing similar attempts to punish Russian actions.

Economic sanctions have been readily deployed by various international players over the past twenty-five years. The prolific use of economic coercion in this time has far outstripped the prevalence of sanctions in any other era. However, in an age where information is freely available and perception is everything, is the threat of action more important than the result?

A commonly held argument is that if a state does not yield to the threat of sanctions, it is unlikely to succumb to their implementation. Simply speaking, if the government of the ‘offending’ nation believes that the political gains of non-compliance outweigh the economic damage, they are incredibly unlikely to back down until further pressure is deployed.

Putin’s Russia is in this position.

To illustrate this, look no further than Iraq. Between 1991 and 1996, 48% of Iraq’s GNP was destroyed. This was achieved through a near total embargo on trade and finance and specific asset freezing of governmental elites.

The main aim of the sanctions, enforced by the UN Security Council, was simple: to force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. However, as we know, it took a major offensive and the loss of thousands of lives to finally force the Hussein regime to back down.

The Iraqi government however, survived the conflict. This is partly due to what is often called a ‘rally round the flag’ phenomenon. Even when the physical threat to Iraqi soil was over, the perception of Iraq being under attack from foreign interests allowed the regime to create a war society.

Horrendous living conditions, a lack of basic health care, an absence of nutritious food – many ever present hardships were ignored as the sanctions were made to appear as an attack on national sovereignty.

A sense of unity, founded through anti-coercer sentiment, allowed the Ba’athist regime to justify the use of arbitrary control and remain unapologetic about the condition of the people – after all, it was ‘not their fault’.

In more contemporary examples of sanctions – those over Iran’s nuclear programme or Syria’s human rights violations for example –  a large part of their refusal to comply has been due to this often deeply embedded feeling of anti-Americanism.

It can be argued that sanctions form an important stepping stone between ‘words and war’. They allow a nation or organisation to act without the expense and guilt that accompany armed conflict. However, as illustrated in the numerous examples including Iraq and Yugoslavia, sanctions alone were not effective enough – they had to be supported with military action.

It is therefore the words that are the most important aspect of sanctions, with their implementation relatively unimportant. Sanctions allow a collective of international players to establish a positive identity on the world stage.

The ongoing negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear programme provide an interesting example of this. It can be seen as somewhat ironic that the USA, proud owner of the largest thermo-nuclear arsenal on the face of the earth, can dictate that other nations are not allowed to match her capability. Furthermore, by neglecting to allow Iran to develop its nuclear capability, it restricts its opportunities to develop nuclear energy – an increasingly attractive prospect in such uncertain times.

But what the imposition of sanctions has achieved for the USA is a positive image. The USA is generally seen as the morally upstanding nation, denying the dissident nations powerful and destructive weaponry, enforcing ‘democracy’ and ‘liberating’ oppressed peoples. The USA’s conduct is irrelevant because of the successful creation of an ‘evil other’, against whom they will always be perceived positively.

Putin will not withdraw from Ukraine. Pro-Russian support in Crimea is too high. Any military action would force Crimea to be part of a nation it rejects. For Putin, the political gains outweigh the economic costs – costs which will surely peter out as Western leaders realise their futility. But by that point, lines will have been drawn.

This is the true power of economic sanctions. They allow the lines to be drawn between what is acceptable and what is not, but more importantly who is acceptable. It is irrelevant whether the stated aims of sanctions are achieved because first and foremost, they create two teams.

In essence, the ‘good guys’ versus the ‘bad guys’. But this isn’t a Disney film, and both sides want to win.

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